RAF 100: Seat-of-the-pants adventures for a Second World War veteran
PUBLISHED: 11:00 15 July 2018
For some World War Two RAF veterans the path into service was not as smooth as others.
Ronald Miller, of Fentiman Way, Hornchurch, was 19-years-old when he started work in the Murex metals lab in Rainham in a job considered so important it meant he didn’t have to join the military.
But day and night shifts took their toll healthwise and he developed 18 boils on his right arm forcing his doctor to sign him off.
By chance at that time the RAF was recruiting volunteers. He eagerly applied.
The devout Christian – who grew up in Stratford – passed the intelligence test but said with his short legs the only way he could qualify for pilot training was if he sat on someone’s lap. Before taking the medical test he was ushered into an office.
“They were really crafty,” Mr Miller said. “If you passed they got you into a room, gave you the King’s shilling, put your hand on the Bible and said, ‘Repeat after me...’.”
He was numbered 1812522 and sent to another office where the trickery continued but this time with an equally crafty Mr Miller – who wanted to be a photographer after a lifelong interest in the subject – turning the tables on a recruitment sergeant.
He said the RAF needed flight mechanics, but as Mr Miller explained: “I looked at him a bit miffed. He said, ‘You do know what an internal combustion engine is, don’t you?’
“I said, ‘Yes, that’s the one that shovels coal, isn’t it?’.”
The recruiting sergeant sighed saying the youngster would be “a disaster” and Mr Miller got what he wanted. After “square-bashing” – fitness training – in Skegness in February wearing shorts and T-shirt he qualified top of the class in 1942 at photography school in Farnborough.
Work helping pilots aim bombs by taking photos of sorties using cameras positioned in the fuselage followed at RAF Penrhos in Wales. Mr Miller remembered one flight when a trainee navigator almost directed the plane into the side of a mountain.
“We used to say our laundry bill nearly went up after experiences like that,” he said.
Following a stint in Scotland he was posted to 16 Squadron – doing reconaissance based at RAF Hartford Bridge in Hampshire and RAF Northolt in Ruislip testing 36 inch-long cameras attached to Spitfires.
At times Mr Miller and 11 of his team members would be called on to check the cameras as Spitfires were taxiing on the runway, sitting on the end of the plane gripping the tail in one hand to look.
But 98-year-old Mr Miller – who saw some of the earliest aeroplanes as a child – remembered when one pilot forgot someone was on his plane’s tail and had to fly gently back to the runway after an alarmed ground controlman radioed him.
“We had some crazy pilots,” Mr Miller said.
Before the war’s end the squadron moved to B58 Melsbroek an airbase outside Brussels, Belgium.
“We were quite happy. The only problem we had was New Year’s Day 1945. I was on the airfield fitting a camera when we heard fire. We looked up and a German Messerschmitt was dive bombing us,” he explained.
The men jumped into a trench for cover, but for some it was an even more unpleasant ordeal with the shelter doubling up as the camp loo.
The pilot made a couple of passes before flying off leaving no one injured though some were left “wallowing about in the muck”, Mr Miller joked.
In September 1945 the war in Europe was over and 16 Squadron disbanded with its members finding their way back to Britain. Mr Miller later found a job as senior technician for oil firm the Iraq Petroleum Company applying photogrpahy skills learnt at the RAF to his new role.
Looking back, he said: “We had great fun in the squadron, but as a Christian you look out for people in trouble and that’s what kept me motivated.”